Punctuation Mistakes to Avoid

In a recent blog post, I identified some aesthetic changes to document formatting that lead to an improved reading experience. In this post, I focus on punctuation and the most common punctuation errors I come across as a proofreader/reviewer/editor of various documents here at Viget.

One of the most frequent comments I receive from content writers here is, “tell us the most common mistakes you see, so we know what to look for before we send documents to you for review.” My answer: concentrating on the following rules will go far to improving your writing from a technical standpoint.

  1. Make sure you punctuate Latin abbreviations correctly (and use them correctly) -- or don’t use them at all.
    1. etc.” means “and others, and so on” and always includes a period. If you end a sentence with “etc.” you do not add a second period.   
      “Viget staff should dress warmly and wear gloves, scarves, etc. for our ice skating excursion.”

    2. e.g.” means “for example” and is spelled with a period after each letter, followed by a comma.  
      “Viget has a number of nonprofit clients (e.g., World Wildlife Fund, The Nature Conservancy).”

      Note that one would never use “etc.” when using “e.g.” as the implication already is that the items cited are illustrative and not inclusive. This same logic applies when using “such as” in a sentence, followed by several examples.
      “Viget project team members, such as UX designers, visual designers, and front-end developers, may work seamlessly on the same project from different offices.”

    3. i.e.” means “that is” and is used to further expand your point. Similar to “e.g.,” it requires a period after each letter, followed by a comma. It is often confused with “e.g.” A mnemonic suggested by a colleague that may be useful: e.g. = “example given” while i.e. = “in essence.”
      “Viget follows an agile software development methodology (i.e., an iterative, collaborative approach) on its custom development projects.”   

  2. Make sure you pull periods inside quotation marks (unless there’s a question mark or exclamation mark there already). See example in my second paragraph above.
  3. Hyphens and dashes are not interchangeable. Hyphens are single-width horizontal lines used within words (see what I did there?). Dashes are longer horizontal lines used within sentences -- to separate parts of a sentence, as I’m doing now.  Typographically, hyphens and dashes are referred to as “n-dashes” and “m-dashes” based on their width in old-school printing presses. An acceptable replacement for a dash is to use two hyphens, as I’ve done above.
  4. Paragraphs that end with a list of bullets need a period at the end of that last bullet. Otherwise, the list just hangs there, incomplete. 
  5. Use double quotation marks, unless it’s a quotation-within-a-quotation situation. I love how this Slate article talks about pervasive single quotation misuse.
  6. Be consistent with comma use. Here at Viget, we embrace the Oxford comma (well, most of us do, even if begrudgingly). I am firmly in the Oxford comma camp, always have been, and always will be. This image says it all. That said, when reviewing documents, I will not insert Oxford commas if the author has consistently not used serial commas throughout a document -- as it is a style choice and not a hard punctuation rule. The mistake I see, however, is a writer flip-flopping and using two different comma styles within the same document. That is not acceptable.

One final tip: keep punctuation resources at your fingertips while reviewing your work.  A few you may find useful:

  • Grammar Girl is always helpful to refresh your memory of grammar, punctuation, and usage that you were taught in school all those years ago.
  • Some people find installing the free Grammarly app to be helpful. I un-installed the app pretty quickly because I found its ever-present highlighting annoying when I was still in writing mode; but, I do know people who like the app for that very reason.
  • For those who own and use the MLA Handbook, you can log into their site for online access to this resource.
  • Here at Viget, we provide all new hires with a copy of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style as a desktop reference.

Cindy helped start Viget and now serves as our Vice President of Operations. She remains fascinated and challenged by an industry that never stops evolving.

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